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Terror In 8-Bits: Old School Horror Video Games

October 13, 2021 11 min read

Terror In 8-Bits: Old School Horror Video Games

The ‘80s were a wonderful and weird time. Even with the MPAA ratings system making sure that kids and teenagers would have a hard time getting into a movie theatre to see the latest gory horror film, Hollywood was directly marketing their films at that demographic.

You see, home video was the trick. Sure, you can make movie theatres enforce that R rating, but just try that at every Mom and Pop video store in town. It didn’t fly! Whether we could pick up the tapes ourselves or bribe our older siblings into getting them for us, we managed to get our hands on whatever movie we wanted.

So, even though in the fullness of time it seems completely bananas that there was a RoboCop cartoon series and toyline, well… yeah, it absolutely was. But it really was kind of the norm.

As a result of the video boom horror movies became even bigger business than ever before. You know what else was booming again in the '80s? Video games! Sure, there was a huge crash in ‘83 when people got sick of buying bad Atari games, but the Nintendo Entertainment System changed all of that in ‘85 when it started bringing well-made, fun video games over to North America from Japan.

Enter LJN. Mass media corporation MCA, which had started in the music business, but had successfully moved into film and television, purchased video game company LJN in the mid-80s. It was then that LJN started publishing video game tie-ins for major motion pictures. There were some huge names, like Back to the Future and Karate Kid; games that make perfect sense to sell to kids, but guess which other trough they hitched their horse up to?

That’s right: horror movies. And LJN managed to score some of the biggest names in the genre at the time. Let’s take a look back at a few of those infamous horror games produced for the NES in the late-80s.

Jaws


Jaws is kind of an anomaly on this list, as the film isn’t technically a straight horror film and actually had a PG rating. Any kid could’ve gone to see it in theatres in 1975.

The thing is, by the time Jaws: The Video Game was released by LJN in 1987, the original film wasn’t what was on kids' minds. Jaws: The Revenge - the much maligned third sequel to the original hit film - was on screens. This movie had a PG-13 rating and dipped its toes much deeper into the horror pool.

One thing to note is that LJN gets a lot of flak for their lackluster video games - and rightly so - however they didn’t actually make the games. They hired other companies to do the development. In this case, they brought in Atlus from Japan to develop the title. Interestingly enough, Atlus, which at the time only developed games for other companies, subcontracted the work to another company, Westone. There’s a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to who made Jaws on the NES!

The game Westone developed lifts very little from the source material, but that’s not entirely weird for the time period. It plays like an arcade game, but with some light RPG elements. It’s a game that really requires the manual or some kind of tutorial. The first time I played it, I rented it and it didn’t have any documentation. I had no idea what was going on and put it down within a half hour, tops. Once you know what you’re doing, though, there is a game here, however good or bad it is.

The player takes on the role of one of the many fishermen trying to hunt down the infamous great white shark in the waters surrounding Amity Island. You take control of your boat sailing from port to port. You’ll frequently enter a random encounter where you dive into the water and shoot jellyfish, stingrays, and the occasional shark trying to collect conch shells. I guess you sell the shells for currency? Because that’s what you use to buy new equipment and increase your level so that you’re strong enough to take on “Jaws”.

There’s also a bonus level where you control a plane that’s seemingly bombing the ocean? You can score more points for a completely unnecessary high score and get some more conch shells!

One piece of equipment you might want to buy is a motion detector - or as I always called it, the “Jaws Finder” - that beeps when the great white is near. You don’t really need it, though, because every so often you’ll see a dorsal fin pop out of the water and the music will amp up letting you know that Jaws is close.

When the great white is near and you enter a random encounter, you’ll actually see him swimming around on-screen. You have to try and draw his power down to zero during one of these battles, which is impossible at low levels. Once you have a high enough level, you can manage the task.

 

When you do, the game changes to a first-person perspective where the great white will try to ram the boat and the player gets three shots to awkwardly spear the shark with the front of their ship. If you miss, you go back to the sea to take on random encounters until you get another chance.

A painful thing to note is that one hit is all you get and every time you die you lose half your shells and a level. You can buy a submarine, which will give you one extra hit and offers some other upgrades, but it’s almost not worth the hassle, since you really want to spend your conch shells on leveling up.

The game came out in 1987, which is fairly early in the NES’ life-cycle, and it shows. Compared to the other games in this list, it feels a little archaic and the music and atmosphere really screams arcade game. Even though there are additional RPG-esque features they’re really only there to pad the length of the game, which - if you know what you’re doing - can actually be completed in a mere 10 minutes.

All that said, I loved Jaws the film as a kid - it was scary, but not too scary, and it was always on TV - so I actually enjoyed the video game once I figured out what the heck I was doing. It can be a fun time-waster to try and master it and see how quickly you can take down the great white. This time… it’s personal!

Friday the 13th

The Friday the 13th horror franchise owned the ‘80s, and even to this day, despite the legal woes, is still on the tip of most horror afficiando’s tongues when they think of their favourite scary movies. So, again, even though it seems so weird that in 1989 Nintendo would allow a game based on a slasher series to grace it’s Nintendo Entertainment System it would also have been foolish not to.

The trick, though, is how do you make a game based on Friday the 13th? It’s kind of tough, right? Can you really make a game where you try to survive the night against a maniacal killing machine in a hockey mask?

Well, it turns out you sorta can, so long as you dress it up a little.

Friday the 13th, once again published by LJN and this time actually developed by Atlus, allows the player to take control of six camp counsellors at Camp Crystal Lake, which is being besieged by the infamous killer, Jason Voorhees in an incredibly fashionable purple jumper and baby-blue mask! Each of the counsellors plays differently, some better than others, but can be switched out at will in order to more quickly traverse the camp.

Your characters will start out with simple rocks for weapons, but the player is tasked immediately with finding a torch, which is much more powerful, and can even find other weapon staples of the series, like the machete or pitchfork, to help in their quest.

The basic premise here is that Jason is out trying to kill the campers at Camp Crystal Lake, which when you think about it is much more dark than any of the movies. The films toyed with the notion in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, but in the end didn’t go there.

The player needs to run around the camp trying to get more powerful weapons to take on Jason. There’s also a timer and you only have three days before Jason overruns the place. What’s really cool is that there’s actually a day/night sequence, a’la Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest only less annoying!

Anyway, finding better weapons wouldn’t be too hard, except for all the zombies, bats, and werewolves you have to deal with. What, you don’t remember those from the movies? Are you sure you watched the right ones? All jokes aside, this is a video game, and as we’ve explored with some other articles here on Pixel Elixir, the programmers took liberties to make the game fun.

Random movie monsters aside, you still have to contend with Jason. He pops up in different cabins all across the camp and when he does it’s up to a counselor to face him and save the kids, whether you’re equipped for the task or not.

The game plays as a sidescroller when you’re out in the main pathways of the camp, but when you enter a cabin it actually switches to an over-the-head third-person perspective (*counts fingers* Does that make sense?), like an RPG dungeon crawler from around that time. You can explore the cabins - which you’ll need to do if you want that torch I mentioned before - or you can hunt down Jason and fight him.

Each day you play, Jason grows stronger, and he’ll even become more brazen and attack you when you’re not in a cabin, so you really want to find better weapons before too long.

Lifted directly from Friday the 13th Part 2, you can find Jason’s mother’s sweater hidden away in the forest, which will confuse Jason and give you some additional health when you fight him. All you have to do is figure out the right path to the hidden cave and fight ol’ Pamela Voorhees’ floating, disembodied head. What, you don’t remember that from the movies, either? Sheesh.

Once you’re armed to the teeth with the torch or machete and are suited up with Mama Voorhees’ sweater, it’s time to take Jason down once and for all. Just seek him out in one of the cabins he’s attacked or, if you’re lucky, find him outside - he’s much easier to fight there - and you can defeat the Camp Crystal Lake killer and hopefully save at least some of the children!

Friday the 13th is another game that usually takes it on the chin from gamers and it’s hard to argue for it. Once again, without a manual it’s tough to figure out what to do. Much like Jaws, though, if you figure out the right path forward you can complete the game in no-time.

I’ve always liked Friday the 13th on the NES, because I was such a mark for the movies. I hadn’t actually seen any of the films before I got to play it for the first time at my cousin’s house, but the movies were so much more infamous and frightening before you actually got to see them that it made the game that much better, I think. Which it certainly needed!

A Nightmare on Elm Street

If there was any other series that contended with Friday the 13th in the 1980s and ‘90s it was the Nightmare on Elm Street films. In fact, in terms of box office you could argue that it bested Friday the 13th, but let’s not go there!

As a result, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to make a home video game version of the movies and guess who was up to the challenge? That’s right, LJN!

This time around they actually farmed the development out to a different company, the UK-based Rare Ltd., which are now famous for the Donkey Kong Country series on the Super NES as well their video game adaptation of Goldeneye and its pseudo spin-off Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64. Back in the late-80s, however, they were churning out a quick-and-dirty Nightmare on Elm Street video game!

Interestingly, there’s some controversy surrounding the game that we finally received versus some of the pre-release information provided about it. When the game was first teased in print magazines at the time it was supposed to allow the player to take on the role of Freddy Krueger himself and try to stop the kids of Elm Street from finding and burying his bones, defeating him for good, much like they did in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

The inciting reason is kind of conjecture at this point, but the game that came to retail did not have Freddy Krueger as the main character. Instead the premise is flipped. You play as a teenager of Elm Street seeking out Freddy’s bones throughout the neighbourhood. You attempt to collect them all from several buildings in the ‘hood and then throw them into the high school furnace to destroy Freddy Krueger. It would seem that letting kids play a video game on the NES where they took control of a homicidal, razor-fingered child killer wouldn’t fly!

The final game still lifts a lot of its gameplay from Elm Street 3. Although the character you play as is really a nameless teenager, you do get powers much like the titular Dream Warriors. As you play the game you have a “sleep meter” that slowly drops to 0. You can collect caffeinated items in the game that will keep you awake, but eventually you will fall asleep.

That would seem to be a penalty, but honestly you want to fall asleep. In your dreams the monsters that you face in the game become harder and you occasionally have to face off with Freddy himself, but you can change into one of three Dream Warriors - a ninja, an athlete, and a wizard - each with cool powers that help you substantially on your quest to collect Freddy’s bones. As you play through the nightmare stages you’ll occasionally see stereos lying about. These stereos will wake the player up and send them back to the real world, but honestly, I try to avoid them!

I mentioned monsters and, yes, much like Friday the 13th, as you traverse Elm Street you’ll be up against a variety of monsters like bats and zombies, whose presence in the waking world makes no sense. It is a video game after all, though, so just ignore it and soldier onwards.

The concept and execution of A Nightmare on Elm Street for the NES is actually the strongest of the three games I’ve highlighted today. It’s a pretty decent beat-’em-up style game! The controls are a little floaty and can be a pain in the butt, but it’s kind of fun to play, especially when you get into the nightmare sequences and you get those cool Dream Warrior abilities!

One very cool feature about the game that bears mentioning is that it can actually be played with up to four players via the NES Four Score or NES Satellite adapters. These devices let you connect four controllers up to the NES and there were very few games that actually used this feature. If you had the equipment, however, you and three friends could take on Freddy all at once! It’s kind of chaotic to actually play, but it looks pretty cool. This feature, however, has resulted in A Nightmare on Elm Street being one of the more expensive NES games on the secondary market. Collectors who simply must own all of the 4-player games for the NES have driven up the prices over the years (the recent extreme resurgence in popularity of the horror genre has no doubt contributed to this as well).

So, that’s three classic horror movie-themed video games you could play on what was ostensibly considered a kids’ toy! For all those adolescents on the schoolyard that yearned to see - but were also too scared to watch - these scary movies, they could live those moments out vicariously in these video games. And parents could live out their own fears buying these games for $80 a pop only to see their kids toss them aside, because they didn’t know what the heck was going on or they managed to beat them in the time it takes to microwave a frozen pizza.

Ryan Hollohan is a husband and father of three based out of Nova Scotia, Canada. In his free time, he's a freelance writer for Pixel Elixir and creator of the nostalgia site RetroDef.ca. You can find him on Twitter at @RyHoMagnifico.